french chocolate cake, american chocolate cake, a birthday (mine, obviously)
I turned 23 last week. Surprisingly enough, I had almost no reflective-philosophical thoughts about and I kind of just took it as a “yay I am so vain I love all of this attention” day. My friends here know me pretty well, so as they would have it, the day also ended up turning into an excuse and/or challenge to see how many calories (mostly in the form of sugar) we could consume.
There were lemon and apricot-pistache tarts, a big chocolate birthday layer cake made from a betty crocker mix (!), and this gâteau au chocolat fondant that I showed up with. As we systematically went through the round of trying all the desserts, and then began reaching for seconds and thirds and so on, it became pretty obvious at how the two chocolate cakes embodied the differences between American- and French-style baking: the betty crocker cake mix one being fluffy and sweet and filled with pockets of chocolate chips, wrapped up in sweet frosting and towered high, while the French one was squat and rather ugly with no adornments, dense and fudgy and more moody.
I think it’s an undisputed fact that French patisserie reigns in this world, and that it is in most circumstances the most beautiful elegant in taste (if you need some proof check out this petite “la feuille d’automne” pastry a friend got me for my birthday). I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But, in admitting that, that’s not to say it’s my favorite. I am an equal opportunity taster when it comes to treats; I don’t discriminate, and I rarely meet a dessert that I don’t like. High-brow, low-brow, Italian, Chinese, Colombian—doesn’t matter. Ask me to choose between a Turkish pistachio baklava, drippy in a honey syrup, or a French lemon tart with meringue, or an American old-fashioned buttermilk doughnut, and I would have a hard time picking.
But really, let’s not kid ourselves, if push came to a shove I’d pick the doughnut because I am a glutton. And, in the end, I’m an American (something I became supremely proud of on my birthday when I converted my British friend over to the wonders of Bruce Springsteen). I don’t know if I would normally eat 3+ big slices of a betty crocker chocolate cake in a twenty-minute time span back home in the States, but all I can say is that last week that sweet, chocolate chip-filled, baking powder-leavened American cake tasted like pretty much the best thing ever. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it felt special, the outsider—the American in France. Or maybe it was just objectively a great cake. Who knows, who cares.
Anyway, I didn’t intend to use this post as a selling-point for betty crocker and indirectly under-sell the recipe I’m trying to share, but it looks like that’s what happened anyway. This French chocolate cake was great, too. It comes from Orangette, and I first found out about it when I read her Homemade Life book, where she calls it her “Winning Hearts and Mind” cake. It’s just about the most dead-simple cake you could make: melt butter and chocolate together, add sugar and eggs and flour, pour in pan and bake. There’s no separate egg yolks and whipped egg whites, no hand mixer required, none of that. What you end up with is a dense, fudgy chocolate torte of a cake, good for almost any occasion.
Gateau au chocolat fondant aka “Winning Hearts and Minds” Cake
I think the “fondant” bit on the end of the title is an important indicator to the type of cake this is. Most other typical gateaux au chocolat are leavened with whipped egg whites, and thus they are of the less fudgy, more squidgy type. If that’s what you’re looking for, check out this recipe.
200 grams (7 ounces) dark chocolate, chopped
200 grams (7 ounces) butter
250 grams (1 1/3 cup) sugar
1 tablespoon flour
Preheat oven to 190 degrees C (375 degrees F). Butter an 8-inch cake pan and line with parchment paper.
Melt the chocolate and butter together in a double boiler or a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring every so often. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar to combine. After letting the mixture cool for a few moments, add in the eggs, one by one, making sure to stir well after each addition. Stir in the flour. The batter should be smooth, dark and glossy.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes (but start checking after 20 minutes), until the top of the cake is crackly and the center looks just set. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then carefully turn the cake out of the pan and revert it so that the crackly top is facing up. Allow to cool completely.
Hey, remember when I said I like my birthday because it’s an excuse to be shamelessly vain for awhile? So yeah, this is me: 23.